Bullying declines in US schools as more students embrace diversity, tolerance

By one national measure, the number of 12- to 18-year-olds who have been bullied has dropped to the lowest level since the government began collecting such data.

Amy Sussman/Invision for Armour/AP
Mario Lopez along with Ross Ellis, STOMP OUT Bullying's founder and chief executive officer, and students of Albert Leonard Middle School seen at the STOMP OUT Bullying Pep Rally with Mario Lopez, at Albert Leonard High School, on Oct. 6 in New Rochelle, N.Y.

The portion of students who experience behaviors used to measure bullying – such as being threatened, pushed, made fun of, or excluded – dropped to 22 percent in 2012-13, the first significant decline since 2005, the US Department of Education reported Friday.

The data come from a survey of 12- to 18-year-olds by the National Center for Education Statistics. Since the start of the measurement in 2005, the percentage had ranged from 28 to 32 percent.

“As schools become safer, students are better able to thrive academically and socially,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Even though we’ve come a long way over the past few years in educating the public about the health and educational impacts that bullying can have on students, we still have more work to do to ensure the safety of our nation’s children,” he added.

The federal government has taken a number of steps in recent years to combat bullying, ranging from White House summits to issuing clearer guidance to schools on how to ensure civil rights protections for gay students and students with disabilities. And almost every state has a law designed to reduce school bullying.

The decline of in-person bullying “syncs well with what we see in the field: There’s very low tolerance today for physical kinds of altercations,” says Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. Massachusetts has seen a decline in bullying, she says, particularly in schools where students report they’ve received prevention training, which has increased under state law. 

One key reason for the apparent drop in harmful behaviors among students is that “young people are leading the way in gaining a greater acceptance of diversity,” says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age in Eugene, Ore. “What I have seen in schools is that among teens it is no longer cool to denigrate somebody because of their sexual orientation or identity.”

The data, drawn from the School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), represent good news, Ms. Willard says, but it’s too early to celebrate a definitive decline in bullying.

NCVS doesn’t use the word “bullying” when asking kids about the range of behaviors it measures. But the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (NYRBS), conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does. It offers a simplified definition of bullying that incorporates the idea of power imbalance and the repetitive nature that researchers say sets bullying apart.

They NYRBS shows bullying among ninth- to 12th-graders held steady at about 20 percent between 2009 and 2013.

In addition to the overall figures, the 2013 NCVS data offers a wealth of details. For example:

  • Some 39 percent of students notified an adult about the harmful behavior they’d experienced.
  • Among the locations where students were bullied, the most common were hallways or stairwells (46 percent) and classrooms (34 percent).
  • About 34 percent experienced bullying behaviors once a month or more frequently. A subset of about 6 percent experienced them almost every day.
  • Slightly more white, non-Hispanic students (24 percent) were bullied than black or Latino or Hispanic students (20 percent). Asian students were the least affected (9 percent).

Both surveys also ask about electronic bullying. In 2012-13, NYRBS shows nearly 15 percent were electronically bullied (21 percent of girls and about 9 percent of boys).

The NCVS shows about 7 percent of students cyberbullied in 2012-13, based on students reporting a range of experiences such as unwanted contact on electronic devices, hurtful information being put on the Internet, or private information being shared. That number is down since 2011 (9 percent) but up since 2007 (4 percent), a US Department of Education spokesperson says.

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